A day after the 2016 Brexit referendum, an article by Dhruva Jaishankar of the Brookings Institute exclaimed that Brexit was “the first major casualty of digital democracy”.
“Digital democracy” is a rare shared dream of political camps across the spectrum. From your progressive Silicon Valley technologists to your Tor-browsing crypto-anarchists, the rise of the internet and the globalization that followed was supposed to bring about a golden age of democratic expression. With a rapidly changing economic, social, and cultural landscape, it was inevitable that citizens would find institutions of the past unresponsive and turn to technology as the solution. The Arab Spring, fueled by social media, was a bright first example of the future to come.
Instead, we got Brexit. We got Trump. We got state-sponsored troll farms and censorship of Winnie the Pooh. We also got monopolistic “tech” companies that were negligent at best, criminal at worst, when it came to protecting our basic online privacy. 2019 is a far-cry from the emerging democratic utopia we were promised, and every week a new story breaks that hardly surprises us anymore.
The digital optimists assumed the internet and globalization would democratize information and create better-informed citizens who are less likely to be silenced, leading to better decision-making. What they failed to see was that these technological changes are inherently a double-edged sword and that they would be all-encompassing in our digital lives.
For every word of policy discussion that appeared on the internet, there were also hundreds of words about the Oscars, thousands of hours of YouTube videos, and millions of photos of the hottest new restaurants of the season. We, as citizens, are better informed than ever before in history, but not necessarily about good public policy.
And of course, better informed is not necessarily the same as correctly informed. When everyone has access to a firehose of instantaneous information in their pocket, it’s not surprising that a few poorly sourced mistruths get mixed into the flow as well. The ability to mass-distribute information might be a global lifeline for dissidents under oppressive regimes, but perhaps the optimists didn’t intend for it to be just as effective and convincing when a suburban mother mass-distributes anti-vaccination fake news. This is a reality we now have to grapple with in our “Post-Fact” world.
Now, all this sounds rather dystopic, and a considerable amount of ink has already been spilled discussing what we can do as a society to tackle these issues. To be fair, progress is being made both in legislation and in how we behave as consumers, but to me, these all seemed like band-aid solutions treating symptoms of a deeper sickness.
That is, until an online petition caught my eye last week.
A friend of mine studying in the UK was growing increasingly agitated with the whole Brexit fiasco and shared a link to a petition. The petition is named “Revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU” and is hosted on the official UK Parliamentary petition website, with its mandate promising that the Government will have an official response to petitions with over 10,000 signatures.
To be frank, I wasn’t too interested at first; these petitions are a dime a dozen online, living on change.org or other governmental petition sites. Only a minuscule number of them ever collect enough signatures to receive a day’s worth of news coverage and most of those simply draw attention to policy changes that are more or less already accepted by the majority. The cynic in me thought that, while it had already reached a couple hundred thousand signatures at that point, it would slow down and most likely end up as nothing more than a single-use talking point while the British MPs continued to bicker for a fortnight about the Prime Minister’s deal.
To my surprise, however, the petition kept growing. And growing. As of this writing, there are now over 5.7 million signatures on the petition.
The number is impressive, and it would no longer surprise me if the number of signatures reach over 6 million by the time you read this. But what struck me most was how quickly my initial skepticism was addressed.
Surely, I thought, this was the work of a sophisticated remnant of the Remain campaign that saw an opening.
Nope. Just a woman named Margaret who seemed to have started it and shared it around more or less organically. So far, there’s no evidence that there are big interest groups backing her and astroturfing online to make this petition go “viral”. It seems like sheer good timing and good algorithmic luck (stay tuned for a blog post on this) that propelled her petition to the forefront of this current chapter of Brexit.
Oh, but what about the bots? The bots are going to brigade this petition just like they did back in 2016.
Nope. Turns out the British bureaucrats had learned their lesson and put in surprisingly sophisticated safeguards (by government standards, at least) and have gone to great lengths to ensure the petition’s integrity.
People would most definitely continue to stay home and just hope for the best, right?
Now, I’m not trying to say that things are back to normal and that this petition has singlehandedly solved all the modern problems with democracy. Misinformation, social discontent, polarization, gridlock – all these symptoms are still very much present and should be treated as the new normal for how we see our relationship with governance and with each other.
However, this brief event has given me a bit more hope that for every negative impact that the tools of digital democracy have caused, there are still equal examples of positive impacts happening just like the optimists thought they would. The aspirations of a better democracy are still possible, even though we all must work very hard to get there.
If the Brexit referendum was one of the first casualties of democracy’s attempt at doing things the old-fashioned way in a truly digital world, then perhaps what happens next in the final chapters of the UK’s saga with Brexit could be one of the early steps of our renewed relationship with digital democracy.
Edward Leung is an Account Lead / Political Practice Lead at Proximis. He spends a lot of time thinking about how technology is changing democracy and governance because he’s generally quite concerned about the whole thing.